Less than two months before Georgia votes for a new governor and a state officials, a federal judge is weighing a request that Georgia ditch electronic ballots and conduct this election with paper ballots that voters can verify with their own eyes.
If that’s not enough drama, consider that the Republican gubernatorial nominee is Brian Kemp. He’s the sitting secretary of state, Georgia’s top election official and one of the defendants in the case, which was brought by the nonprofit Coalition for Good Governance and several Georgia voters.
A conversion to paper ballots so close to election day would “damage and disable election security,” said attorney John Salter, representing the state government — defendants in the federal courtroom of U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg in Atlanta on Wednesday.
Over hours of testimony, witnesses including former Secretary of State Cathy Cox as well as the election director for Georgia’s most populous county outlined how they think switching to paper could cause problems, including disenfranchising people. Their concerns include things such as discouragingly long lines at polling places on election day, voter confusion over the new format and finding enough machines to scan what would presumably be ballots with ovals for voters to fill in beside candidate names.
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But Georgia has been “frozen in time,” said attorney David Cross, who’s representing some of the plaintiffs in this suit, including voter Donna Curling. That’s a reference to the state’s circa-2001 voting machines. The plaintiffs say that including paper in the process is the wave of the future, especially in the light of concerns over foreign hacker interest in elections.
Cross said that Georgia’s system doesn’t include a way to do a real audit — a check of whether each vote that was cast was counted.
A pair of professors who testified said that they’re not convinced Georgia’s system is fully secure.
For example, Richard DeMillo, a professor of computing at Georgia Tech, said that Georgia’s machines depend on a “notoriously insecure” operating system, Windows CE.
Georgia is only one of five states that rely on paperless machines for voting statewide, according to a tally from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University law school. Georgia does also use paper ballots in some limited circumstances, such as absentee voting.
What voters see at polling places are DREs, or direct-recording electronic voting machines. Those send the voter’s choices from touchscreens to memory cards and not to paper. The other 45 states use paper in some way, such as ballots with fill-in areas beside candidate names, or machines that print paper receipts for each voter.
While there’s no evidence of outside tampering with Georgia’s election results, it is true one reason why Virginia ditched DREs is worries about the risk of interference.
And several recent cases don’t do much to reassure Georgians who are worried about election integrity. Before the 2016 election, a cyber security researcher found that a database containing voter records had been left open on the internet by Kennesaw State University’s Center for Election Systems, which was then helping run state elections. DeKalb and Habersham counties have recently corrected the registration of hundreds of voters inadvertently assigned to the wrong districts.
If there’s anything that pretty much everyone agrees to, it’s that Georgia does need a new system — but the difference lies in “when.”
Kemp himself has established a commission to study the options out there and recommend something to the state Legislature that could be set up in time for 2020 elections.
But a shift to another system in under eight weeks would amount to costly chaos, the defendants argue.
Some Georgians are worried enough about election integrity that they’re requesting absentee ballots in an effort to generate a paper trail. Those are paper ballots that the voter returns to their local election office by mail or by hand.
Totenberg said she plans to issue a ruling by Friday or Monday.